Drug Policy & Treatment in Ohio, Part 2

April Baer: As you heard here yesterday, thousands of people are convicted every year in Ohio on drug crimes. The system offers judges the option of sending first time offenders to treatment. But supporters of the Initiative say the system needs to be corrected, to protect people suffering from addiction from being labeled criminals. Ed Orlett, the campaign's director, says what's needed is an amendment to the Ohio Constitution, making treatment the only sentencing option for certain felons.

Ed Orlett: This would include only those who were not involved in any violent crime, not involved in trafficking, had no other offenses at the same time except maybe minor offenses related to their drug use-maybe petty theft or something of that nature.

AB: If Ohio's Initiative makes it to the ballot, it could become a test run for a nationwide organizing effort. Its funding comes from the Campaign for New Drug Policies, whose donors include Billionaire George Soros, and Peter B. Lewis, one of Northeast Ohio's richest men - also a contributor to this radio station. Observers believe that if Ohio votes "yes" on the issue, Washington might start paying much more attention to the Campaign's agenda.

Much is at stake for the opposing side, too. Governor Taft plans to campaign actively against it-at the same time he barnstorms the state for re-election. The Taft administration argues there are several reasons why the Initiative is bad policy. Lucille Flemming is director of the Ohio Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Department.

Lucille Flemming: My main reaction was they don't know much about Ohio, because the recent laws passed in this state give that option to all judges... I do believe many judges are using the new sentencing guidelines that have come through in the last several years.

AB: There are no state records available on how many first time offenders were incarcerated rather than sent to treatment, although the state sentencing Commission is researching that information. Fleming says she's also concerned about cost, as the state's budget belt grows ever tighter. The projected startup cost of the Initiative is about one fifth of Fleming's annual budget. Additionally, she questions the wisdom of making this policy issue part of the state constitution. If that happens, it would be extremely difficult for the legislature to revoke. Fleming cautions anyone who thinks the state won't put up a fight.

LF: Oh, I think it's going to be an interesting summer.

AB: Treatment professionals are divided on whether the Initiative is a good idea. Some favor more access to treatment, but say they're unclear on the campaign's motives. Joe Cummins runs four treatment centers of Recovery Resources, one of Cuyahoga County's largest providers of substance abuse counseling. He says he'll have to be convinced that the Initiative offers not just treatment, but some kind of accountability for drug abusers.

Joe Cummins: The first assumption there is that drug abuse is first and foremost a crime. And my perspective from the work I do is... I look on it first of all as an illness. I'm wondering, how can we get this person help. That's not to say that the legal system doesn't help us. Sometimes it takes the legal system to bring someone into treatment. Very few people wake up out of the blue and say I'm going to get help today, I'm going to stop using drugs.

AB: Reaction from former abusers varies widely. Jason is a 20-year-old St. Ignatius graduate who became addicted to pot and alcohol two years ago, and came to Recovery Resources for help after becoming homeless. He does not support mandatory treatment.

Jason: I think that's a cop-out because... a lot of my friends who've been arrested on drug convictions have gone in front of the judge and said I have a drug problem, when they might not have even used the substance they were arrested for... when you start having the state reinforcing that, it's taking money and help from those who might really want it, and who might not have the resources to do anything about it.

AB: Connie, a 48-year-old mother of two and grandmother of eight, has been clean for four years. She spends her spare time with her two and eight grandchildren.

Looking at her expressive, gray eyes and neatly dressed golden-black curls, you might be surprised to hear she once had a crack habit, and lengthy corrections record. She says clearly not all offenders are ready for treatment, but in most cases, she believes it's worth a try.

Connie: People who are out there and who are still doing, they know they have this problem, and they're not seeking help, is because they've probably burned down a lot of bridges on the way. There's a whole lot of people they do want to go to, that they can't even go to now.

AB: Connie says the point is to recognize drug abusers as people, even if they are criminals. In Cleveland, I'm April Baer.

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